Singing dunes, the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world, ancient volcanoes and expanses of petrified lava. You’ll find all this and more in the Mojave National Preserve. Its location is unique and remote, between the chaotic cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and as a result, it is not as frequently visited as the rest of the parks in California.
If you love visiting desert landscapes and like having places all to yourself, then the Mojave National Preserve is the place for you. Let’s discover the main attractions and things to do in the area and all the information you need to plan your trip.
Directions to Mojave National Preserve
As previously mentioned, Mojave Desert is located about 200 miles from Los Angeles and 90 miles from Las Vegas. It is a very large natural area bordered to the north by I-15 and to the south by I-40. The nearest town of some relevance is Barstow (under an hour away from Mojave Desert) also known because it is on Route 66 in California.
If you have rented a car, you can take a day trip from Las Vegas (about a 1-hour drive), but taking a day trip from Los Angeles (2.5 hours) is much more of a hassle and I personally advise against it. The aforementioned town of Barstow can be used as a stop depending on your itinerary.
Admission to the park is free and it is open all year.
Kelso Depot Visitor Center
The Kelso Depot Visitor Center is located within the park. It stands on the historic remains of what was once a railway station dating back to 1924. It is built in the Mission Revival style, recalling that of the Spanish missions (very numerous along the Californian coast) that can be visited along the Camino Real. In addition to the classic information services normally provided at a visitor center, you will also find exhibitions of local art and of history and nature of the Mojave Desert.
The Visitor Center is open from Thursday to Monday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. It is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Christmas Day.
There is also a small visitor center near Hole-in-the-Wall open from Thursday to Monday from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. In the town of Barstow there is another information center open from Monday to Friday from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.
Things to do in Mojave National Preserve
Before going into detail about the main attractions of the Mojave National Preserve, I would like to tell you about two points of interest:
- The Mojave Road Historical Marker: Marks the original route of the historic Mojave Road, one of the first roads traveled by pioneers and caravans heading to California.
- In a small town called Baker, don’t miss a photo of the world‘s self-proclaimed tallest thermometer.
Kelso Dunes are probably the most famous attraction in the park. Also nicknamed the Singing Sands or Singing Dunes. But only visitors adventurous enough to travel to the top of these dunes can discover the secret behind the nickname. Those who don’t feel like taking such a walk in the sun can read on. For everyone else, here’s a spoiler alert!
Having climbed the dunes, as you are walking along the ridge, if you start dropping lots of sand from the sides, it will make a curious and fascinating sound. The noise you will hear is produced by the vibrations of the sand when it moves along the ridges.
The only way to get to Kelso Dunes is on foot via a trail about 3 miles from the parking lot on Kelso Dunes Road. The reward for reaching the top of these dunes (some of which are over 656 ft high) is not only being able to witness the special sound phenomenon described above, but also a beautiful 360° view of the entire surrounding area. In order to walk along the trail, arrive at the top of the dunes, rest and go back, it will take at least three hours.
Cinder Cone Field and Lava Flows
Walking along the roads of the Mojave National Preserve, you can see some very well preserved volcanic scorias standing out on the horizon. You will notice several of them along the way.
A white cross that rises above a small hill is a memorial for those who lost their lives during the First World War. Erected in 1934, it has been the subject of numerous controversies over the years, even before the Supreme Court (the cross was on government territory and therefore, according to some, violated the separation between church and state). In 2010, the litigation ended because the land on which the cross is located was donated by Congress to a Veterans Association.
Teutonia Peak trail
Did you think the biggest forest in Joshua Tree was in Joshua Tree National Park? Well, that’s the wrong answer, because it is located inside the Mojave National Preserve, more precisely along the ridges of Teutonia Peak.
If you want to see them up close you can take the Teutonia Peak Trail, which starts near the Mojave Cross. The hike is moderately demanding, because it is over 3 miles long round trip and the elevation gain is over 656 ft. Therefore, you should consider at least an hour and a quarter to complete it.
As you can guess from the name, the main attraction of this place are the thousands of holes in the rock caused by the glowing lava from the violent volcanic eruptions in the vicinity. In this area, if you are adventurous enough, you can take the Rings Loop Trail, one of the most famous trails in the area.
It will take you to explore the Banshee Canyon, where you can use metal rings (hence the name of the trail) to climb the most challenging parts of the trail. It’s not for everyone, so if you’re undecided you can ask the Visitor Center nearby.
Mojave National Preserve Day Trip
If you are traveling from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (or vice versa) on your West Coast road trip, and have a couple of hours to hike, you can get at least a taste of this park. If you are coming from Los Angeles, I suggest you take I-15 and exit at Baker on Kelbaker Road, which will take you to the Kelso Depot Visitor Center. From here you’ll have to make a choice:
- If you want to get as close as possible to Kelso Dunes, continue south along Kelbaker Road. You can then decide to go to the small parking area, from where the path to the dunes starts, or continue south where, while you’re on the road, you can see Granite Peak, one of the highest peaks of Granite Mountain, then take the I-40 and continue to Los Angeles or Las Vegas. I wouldn’t recommend this solution (since you won’t be able to make the trip to Kelso Dunes for timing reasons) and I’d suggest you choose the next one, which will give you a better idea of what the Mojave National Preserve has to offer.
- From the Kelso Depot Visitor Center, continue along the Kelso-Cima Road, which allows you to see the Providence Mountains and as you approach Cima, you’ll see more and more Joshua Trees around you. Continue along Morning Star Mine Road to take in the views of the Ivanpah Valley. When you reach the junction with Ivanpah Road, continue north and when you reach Nipton Road, turn left to rejoin I-15 and resume your route.
If you are coming from Las Vegas, it is recommended to take I-15 and get off at Exit 286 towards Nipton Road and follow the route we marked above in the second option to head back.
Obviously, the deciding factor in choosing between the two, in addition to the time you can spend on this trip, is the direction of your itinerary and where you plan to go next. So study the map of the park and its exits/entrances well and you will be able to organize your timing accordingly.
Where to Stay in Mojave National Preserve
As mentioned above, the nearest town is Barstow, which offers a fair selection of accommodations (many of them cheap motels), some of them built in the Route 66 vintage style, like the Route 66 Motel. You can check out all the options by clicking on the button below.
If you prefer to camp inside the park there are two main campgrounds available, one in the Hole-In-The-Wall and one in Mid Hills. The road leading to the latter is unpaved and therefore not recommended for RVs.
Even if the area is managed by the National Park Service, you will not find all the typical tourist facilities of other U.S. National Parks. This makes it necessary to plan both the itinerary and the timing more carefully.
There are no gas stations inside the Mojave National Preserve, so make sure you have enough fuel because this is the last place in the world you’ll want to run out. Not only are there no gas stations, but also shops where you can buy food and beverages (except, there is a vending machine at the visitor center), so make sure you have everything you need, especially if you’re planning to do some walking.
Since this is a desert environment, watch out for all dangerous animals that can be found in this area, especially snakes.
The last recommendation is almost a foregone conclusion, given the place you will be visiting, which is to pay particular attention to the temperatures that, especially in the summer months in this part of California, reach and easily exceed 104 °F.